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The Preservation of Mission Archives - A Mission Executive's Perspective

by David M. Howard

Prepared for the Consultation on Nondenominational Mission Archives Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College November 1-3,2001

The invitation to participate in this Consultation baffled me at first, since I am not an archivist and am totally unqualified to write from a technical standpoint on any area of archives. However, Robert Shuster graciously clarified the invitation by writing, "We would like to ask you to write one of the papers... incorporating your own experience as a missionary, a mission executive and a researcher ...Obviously this will be a personal opinion piece rather than a scholarly article. "

With that mandate in mind I feel free to write this paper, not as one technically qualified in the field of archives, but rather as a mission executive who has benefitted greatly from the use of good archives.. My late brother in law, Dr. Addison Leitch, used to say, "1 never apologize for giving personal experiences, since they are the only kind I have ever had " So I will not apologize for the personal nature of this paper .

The paper will be divided into the areas of ministry to which God has called me over the years. In each era I will attempt to show how archives have served me well or poorly, as the case may be. I will then conclude with comments on the obstacles to and the benefits of in-house mission archives.


It was my privilege to serve in Costa Rica and in Colombia. During ten of those years I was an assistant general director of the Mission and also field director for Colombia. In our administrative structure we had four general directors: the General Director Kenneth Strachan, Associate General Director Dit Fenton, Assistant General Director Dayton Roberts plus myself We met several times a year for executive consultations and planning.

One year we took some management training together and were urged to keep each other and our subalterns fully informed of our plans and actions. Consequently we regularly circulated memos to the four of us plus to the four division heads who served under us. This meant that we often wrote eight copies of every memo. (And this was before the days of photocopiers, so it was all done with carbon copies. Imagine the poor secretaries who had to type them! )

To illustrate how NOT to burden archives unnecessarily I mention the following. One time a missionary who served in one of the divisions made a promotional trip to the U.S. He was entertained in many private homes as he traveled around and thus wrote a thank you letter to each person who had entertained him. He made eight carbon copies of every thank you letter and circulated them to the eight directors and division heads. We soon realized that the effort to keep adequate records can be carried to an extreme, and we put a stop to that sort of duplication of unnecessary records.

At the same time we did realize the value of adequate archives. While we did not have a highly developed system, we assigned one missionary, Lois Thiessen, who was well qualified in office procedures, to begin sorting our records, disposing of unnecessary material and putting the rest on microfilm. After Mike Berg retired, having served as president of LAM from 1976 to 1989, he took up what Lois had begun so efficiently and carried it on. Today the LAM records are in the Billy Graham Center archives and available for use.

The importance of adequate records came home to me during my years in Colombia. I was privileged to witness there a remarkable work of the Holy Spirit in church growth following a time of severe persecution against evangelical Protestants. While I was not responsible for this growth, I was on the scene participating in a personal way.

Consequently my fellow general directors began to urge me to write up what God was doing. They told me that it was important for mission history and that I was the obvious person qualified to do this.

After some hesitation I was finally convinced that they were right. So I researched and wrote my first book, Hammered as Gold. The publishers, Harper and Row, wrote on the dust jacket " a poignant drama of human suffering and new hope among the Evangelical Christians of Colombia. " Extensive research was essential for a book of this nature. I drew heavily on the work of others, including a doctoral dissertation by James Goff on the era of persecutions, the LAM files, and my own personal records and diaries.

Many of the ten books that I have written have been grounded in archival work in various places, even though such archives have not always been very professional or complete.


When God called me back to the U.S. from Latin America to serve as Missions Director of IVCF I found myself responsible for three areas of work: to encourage mission commitment among IVCF students on secular campuses; to encourage the work of the Student Foreign Missions Fellowship, which was IVCF's ministry in Christian schools; and to direct the Urbana missions conventions. I soon realized the need for some in depth historical study to understand the background for these areas.

Possibly the most significant thing God allowed me to do in those days was to study how God has consistently used students to awaken the church to its worldwide missionary responsibility. To prepare a series of lectures for Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary on the topic "Students and Missions" I did extensive work in the Missionary Research Library at Union Theological Seminary in New York. I was astounded to discover how, in almost every forward movement of missions in modern times, God had chosen students as His primary channel. The amazing story of the rise and decline of the great Student Volunteer Movement appalled me. I began to see direct parallels between what had happened in SVM and some of the pressures for IVCF to change its missions emphasis at Urbana and elsewhere. We were awakened to our dangers, and I believe God preserved the missions vision of IVCF and Urbana primarily through this historical study.

The result of this was the writing of my second book, Student Power in World Missions, which traces the history of God's work among students in calling the church to renewed world outreach. The archives of the Missionary Research Library, as well as the Wheaton College library (before the establishment of the Billy Graham Center) provided the basis of this book, which has been used extensively in IVCF circles and missionary training schools.

As director of the Urbana Conventions of 1973 and 1976 I delved into the files of IVCF to understand where we had come from with these conventions, what were the challenges and dangers, and how we could fulfill God's calling to us in these times. The blessing of God was evident in unmistakable ways on these conventions. I thank God for the historical materials that gave us a firm foundation on which to build.


In 1977 Leighton Ford asked IVCF to loan me to the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (LCWE) to organize and direct a consultation to be held in 1980. In preparation for this I spent considerable time with Leighton and also with Billy Graham, who was to serve as honorary chairman of the consultation. One of the first things Billy told me was to read through the records of the Lausanne Congress of 1974 to understand where LCWE was and what was the purpose of a further consultation. This required work again in archives.

The consultation was held in Pattaya, Thailand, in 1980. Today there are seventeen monographs that came directly out of that consultation on reaching specific people groups. These and many other records of LCWE are in the Billy Graham Center archives. While I did not write any of these monographs, I participated in the planning and execution of the consultation. So I have a deep appreciation for the place of archival material in the mission outreach of the church.


When I was asked to serve as International Director of the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF), I soon realized that I had a woefully inadequate understanding of the background of WEF, which traced its history back to 1846. Therefore I plunged into the study of this history , so that I could know the organization for which I was responsible. This study was done, apart from personal interviews with people, almost exclusively in the archives of the Billy Graham Center, since the WEF records were on file there. As was true in previous experiences, this was a startling eye opener to me, as I began to understand how God had worked in remarkable ways in leading WEF through difficult as well as exciting times.

Some previous directors of WEF had been meticulously careful in keeping adequate records. Others had obviously been very poorly organized, and their records were chaotic. One of the most frustrating situations was to find an important document that clearly related to significant developments in WEF, only to discover that there was no date nor author to identify when, where and by whom this was written. This made it almost impossible to know where it fit in the whole scheme.

In spite of such frustrations the archivists of the Billy Graham Center were wonderfully cooperative and helpful to me in this study. We were able to publish the first definitive history of WEF covering the years of 1846 to 1986 entitled The Dream That Would Not Die. This may well have been the most important contribution I was able to make to WEF.


To my amazement I was urgently called back to the LAM in 1995 to serve as president at a time when they needed some administrative reorganization. Because of my long association with LAM plus my worldwide ministry through other organizations, I was able to bring some historical perspective to the Mission and its needs. While I did not write any books at that time, I did write a regular column in the LAM publication, the Latin America Evangelist. In doing so I often drew on background material that formed a basis for where the LAM was and where we hoped to go in the future. Once again archival material was helpful.


For some years Wheaton College has wanted a history of missions emphasis on the Wheaton campus documenting how God has worked in sending out missionaries over the 140 years history of the College. The original vision came from Prof Lyle Dorsett and strongly supported by the Alumni Relations Office, the president, and others. After a couple of abortive attempts to get such a book written they turned to me to do it.

As a student at Wheaton in the post World War II years (1945-1949) I was part of the great upsurge of mission interest that came out of the war. I have also served as a trustee of the College, as a visiting lecturer, and as a chapel speaker on various occasions. So my connections with the College have been close.

When I agreed to write the book the Billy Graham Center Library graciously gave me a private study room, and the College provided a phone, a computer, and a printer. I drew heavily on the archives of Wheaton College under the director David Malone and also on the Billy Graham Center archives under the director Robert Shuster. Two different student research assistants did extensive work in the archives to provide me with the basic material from which to write. The librarians and the archivists once again lent their expertise to help me in this project. .

This proved to be the most enjoyable and stimulating writing project I ever had. It took me back into personal as well as College history to see the hand of God in the lives of hundreds of missionaries. As I write, the book is in the hands of Tyndale House Publishers scheduled for publication in the fall of 2001 with the title From Wheaton to the Nations.



1. Vision. Too often mission personnel may not have adequate vision for the value of archives. They may fail to recognize how indispensable it is for an agency to understand its heritage and the vision of the founders. Or, even when such understanding is present, the pressures of other aspects of the work squeeze out the question of archives. This leads to the next point.

2. Priorities. It is so easy to be deeply engulfed in the busyness of the work of an agency that some matters inevitably get left to one side. Archives are seldom the most urgent task at hand. We have all experienced "the tyranny of the urgent" (as Charles Hummel of IVCF coined it years ago in a famous little booklet). So archives are too easily left for "manana"

3. Personnel. Few missions or Christian agencies have someone who is technically qualified in the area of archives. This is an intricate discipline which, to be done properly, requires adequate training and vision. Some missions are able to assign personnel to this, because they see the importance of it. But it is a rare entity that puts a high priority on personnel for the task.

4. Poor Documentation. As mentioned above one of my most frustrating experiences in writing a history was to come across a valuable document, only to find that there was no author, date, or place to identify its origin. This made it almost impossible at times to fit it into the total scheme of things

Another related problem is unorganized files. While some missionaries and executives are well organized, others are not. Therefore, the documentation they leave may be in chaotic condition, which makes it extremely difficult to work through and find the value of it. I speak from sad experience on this point in the historical writing I have done.

5. Finances. This, of course, is often the bottom line. Are there any funds available to cover the expenses of setting up and maintaining adequate archives? This usually becomes a low priority, since funds are almost always tight in faith based organizations such as non denominational missions.

6. Space. This is another obstacle to adequate in-house files. Not many nondenominational missions have adequate space for handling the needed archives. Too often they get relegated to some musty basement in old boxes or cabinets and left to mold and decay. How many organizations have the marvelous climate controlled facilities of the Billy Graham Center archives?


I. Understanding the Heritage of the Organization. It is vitally important that the leadership of any mission should understand fully their heritage. When I took over the leadership of World Evangelical Fellowship in 1982, I was woefully unaware of the great history and original vision of the organization which at that time was 136years old. I discovered that few, if anyone, in WEF had any real understanding of where we had come from. Thus writing the history of WEF ,using the archives in the Billy Graham Center and other resources, proved to be an absolutely invaluable exercise for me. It allowed me to try to give leadership based on a firm foundation of who we were and where we had come from.

2. Keeping on Track. When the present leadership of the mission understands their heritage, they can keep on track with the vision of the founders. Some organizations have gone far afield from what their founders had envisioned, and this can lead to disaster. Perhaps the greatest illustration of this is the present status of the Ivy League colleges and universities, almost all of which were founded to train pastors and Christian workers and whose charters read like an evangelical mission society.

3. Expanding of that Vision. When the present leadership understands adequately the heritage and original vision, they can then "stand on the shoulders" of their predecessors and move ahead with new vision.

A good illustration of this was seen in the Latin America Mission when Mike Berg took over as president in 1976. The LAM, originally founded in 1921 for continent-wide evangelistic outreach (its original name was the Latin America Evangelization campaign), had gone through various stages of development. In the early 1970's the most radical stage came when the LAM turned over to national leadership all of its institutions -not just local churches (which long since had gone under national leadership) but the major ministries such as a seminary, a hospital, Bible institute, publishing house, bookstores, camp programs, radio stations, student ministries, and all other entities.

Mike Berg began to ask himself how to lead a mission that had now delegated to the nationals all of the major ministries which had been born in the LAM. What was the place of the Mission now? By going back to the vision of the founders for continent-wide evangelization, and by looking at the present needs of the continent, Mike saw a tremendous challenge and opportunity .He saw the great urban centers which were exploding with the migration from the rural areas and the population explosion. He saw the world class cities as being a major target for pioneer work in the updated meaning of"pioneer". Thus there began to develop in his mind the vision for what became Christ For the City (CFC). Some of us on his Board of Trustees strongly encouraged him to pursue this vision, which he did.

The result was a whole new area of vision and outreach, which today has also become independent from LAM, having matured in the way that other ministries founded by LAM had done. But the vision for the cities and related challenges are still very prevalent in the ministry of LAM. It is not an exaggeration to say that the archives of the LAM played a significant role in the ongoing outreach of the Mission.

I had a somewhat similar experience when I was asked to take over the presidency of LAM in 1995, just as CFC was becoming independent. Fortunately I knew the history and heritage of the LAM quite well. I also had a worldwide perspective having served for ten years as international director of WEF which required me to travel extensively around the world. Thus I knew that one of the most tragic and unreached people groups in the world today is children at high risk (street children). Given LAM's original vision and heritage, and in view of the hopelessly neglected street children of the world, it seemed a "no brainer" that our next major focus should be on these poor children. Thus we assumed a stronger emphasis on this area of work, which had actually been part of the vision of the founders. In the mid 1920's the founders, Dr. and Mrs. Harry Strachan, had opened a Bible home for needy children of the streets of Costa Rica.

It is this combination of historical perspective with contemporary needs that will greatly strengthen the ministry of any mission. And the archives of the mission can thus be seen as indispensable to the present and future vision and direction of the mission.

As must be evident by this time much of my ministry in various places has been greatly enhanced by the use of archives. Therefore, I owe a debt of gratitude to those who have prepared and provided the materials, which have been so significant in my own activities. I pay special tribute to Robert Shuster and his fine staff of the Billy Graham Center, who are true professionals in this field. But they are not only professionals, they are also friendly and personable, in their work. My thanks to all of them and my gratitude for being invited to participate in this significant consultation.

Last Revised: 10/01/01
Last Revised: 1/5/05
Expiration: indefinite

Wheaton College 2005